Michael Jackson Passes - Echoes of Elvis
The news that singer Michael Jackson died early Thursday afternoon at his Los Angeles home, has predictably sent shock waves through the world of pop celebrity. It has also provoked a tidal wave of responses in the Twittersphere and blogosphere.
Michael, of course, transcended the borders of his musical genre because he was an innovator, a pusher of boundaries in musical terms.
Sadly, his celebrity in latter years became more a matter of various troubles, such as the charges of child molestation brought against him and, latterly, problems relating to money as his album sales dropped.
Even his biggest fans were unsure whether Michael would be able to mount the ambitious series of concerts planned for London this year.
In some ways, Michael's celebrity trajectory is unique; in others it follows an all too familiar pattern. Actually, on some levels, it seems to parallel the life arc of another 'king' of popular music and ruler of pop-culture - Elvis Presley.
There are obvious differences of course, but the similarities shouldn't be ignored. Their stories may have important lessons to teach us about the power of global celebrity and the frailty of those human beings who are subjected to it.
Like Michael, Elvis was raised the son of relatively poor parents. Like Michael, he began to experiment with new forms of musical expression at a young age. Like Michael, he was able to bring a new audience to what was previously thought of as 'black' music - in Elvis' case it was Rock n Roll, in Michael's it was more R&B and soul.
In the post-war America of the fifties, a global phenomenon was being born. For the first time in history, teenagers had disposable income to spend as they wished. Weary of war and upheaval, their parents wanted for them a quality of life they themselves had not enjoyed as young people.
Wherever there is money, there are creative marketers to help people spend it. Young people were invited to spend their money on new 'teenage' movies, pastimes and all toys, such as roller skates, mass-produced surfboards and so on.
The marketers of these new teen sensations were quick to identify the power of music to sell. New forms of music, which were often frowned on by parents and authority figures, allowed young people to express themselves in ways that broke with the 'family friendly' forms of earlier generations.
The new music was borrowed, in the main, from black rhythm and blues and gospel, and was considered dangerous and even antisocial, which made it all the more attractive.
Elvis was seen as the embodiment of that edginess and danger. He was good-looking, talented and not afraid to step on other peoples' blue suede shoes in the quest for self-expression. And he certainly sold records and made other people a lot of money. Like Michael, he became a one-man industry.
Like Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley was a pioneer and a rebel. Perhaps not surprisingly given the attention they received, both were given to flights of incredible generosity and unusual vanity.
In both cases, beneath the self-confident public air there lurked an abiding insecurity. This is often the way with extremely talented people, especially in entertainment.
The very insecurities which drive very creative people to succeed need to be understood and managed, or they will take over.
The deaths of Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin and others all bear testimony to the fact that celebrity all too often covers up inner traumas, separating people from their inner struggles.
Surrounded as they are so often by 'yes' people who tell them only what they want to hear, celebrities are often inured against facing personal weaknesses. On one level, they may never grow beyond a certain phase in their lives.
Instead of making the big changes as they confront their inner weakness - as most of us have to do - they may instead simply decide to change their inner circle when things get rough. Both Michael and Elvis did this. Or they may take refuge in lavish lifestyle choices, as if a person's life really does consist of the things he or she owns.
Elvis found adulation hard to deal with later in his life. This is perhaps not surprising given the enormous attention he attracted. Nothing could have prepared him for the rigours of celebrity on the scale to which he experienced it.
On one level the same might be said of Michael Jackson. How can any human being possibly live with the huge and unpredictable ups and downs of global celebrity? Susan Boyle couldn't deal with it after her instant recognition factor went through the roof - and she knew only a fraction of the attention Michael received.
Meanwhile, younger stars like Britney Spears continue to struggle to find lasting peace of mind and establish a strong self-esteem in the midst of the media maelstrom.
You could argue that all of the modern claimants to pop-royalty at least had the opportunity to learn from Elvis' experience.
At one point Elvis said, 'I am so tired of being Elvis Presley.' After his death, at the age of just 42, LIFE magazine featured a major piece on his life. Toward the end, the writer spoke about Elvis' struggle to live up to the image of his youth. 'Perhaps not even Elvis could be Elvis any more,' he wrote.
Sadly, it may be true that toward the end not even Michael Jackson, with his fragile health, could live up to the image he'd established two decades earlier.
We do well to remember the young Michael, full of energy and unbridled creative force. But we would also do well to learn from the struggles of the older Michael and perhaps reflect on how we treat those who seek, yet are so often harmed by, the limelight of global fame.
Like Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson died a relatively young man who still had so much more he could have given the world.
Copyright Mal Fletcher, 2009